Stewart Brand’s TED talk

I found a lot to be encouraged about, but also a lot to be very skeptical of, in Mr. Brand’s TED talk. Brand is the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, a co-founder of WELL, one of the earliest and most successful Internet communities, and a former California-state environmental policy advisor. Brand’s influence on the culture of technology use in America since the 1960s cannot be overestimated.

I was very captivated by Brand’s discussion of slum occupants in his TED talk. Brand describes these new urbanites as creative, resourceful populations–a way of thinking that always appeals to those of us concerned about Western paternalism. Of course, he does frequently mention what “we” can do to help these populations: help them to get better infrastructure, guide them into legitimate markets rather than criminal ones, etc. But overall the attitude seems like a good one for development policy, one that focuses on directing rather than saving.

It made me feel optimistic to hear him describe how urbanization would inevitably help stabilize global population and also allow abandoned lands to return to their natural state.

However, in another breath his says that those who remain outside the cities with then switch from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, which they can transport to urban relatives for sale. What about the land returning to its natural state? In this depiction, wouldn’t it just become monocultural farm land?

I became less optimistic as the talk went on. For example, Brand describes the world’s need for bioengineered crops and denounces the hysteric reaction of many biologists to this domain of research. In doing so, he glosses over the fact that many anti-GMO activists oppose this technology not only because they are concerned about unknown consequences to human health and the environment, but because it transforms natural resources into corporate property through patent laws that allow GM-food to be patented.

A mini-rant: Personally, I agree that more research needs to be done on agriculture, and even genetic engineering is justified, but the need to do more research and the need to produce specific products should not be conflated. We need better policy regulating the transformation of research products into consumer products. The question is, of course, is it worth it to slow down profit-production if it means slowing down research?

Also, from everything I’ve read, Brand is wrong about the impact of GM agriculture. He argues that it causes need for less pesticides and less soil erosion because soil needs to be tilled less often. But everything I have read by Michael Pollan and the Institute for Science in Society suggests strongly otherwise. These are the promises of agro-business, not the realities of GM-agriculture.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about techno-hype. While i think it serves a great existential purpose in society–giving people hope, dreams, meaningful career goals–it always seems that these visions of our wonderful, technology-aided future leave out a good deal of realistic thinking about how political economy works.

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